The second-round series between the Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks is tough to predict without knowing Joel Embiid’s status.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: no one knows whether Joel Embiid can play or not. Early in Game 4 of the 76ers first-round series vs. the Washington Wizards, the 7-footer fell to the hardwood awkwardly, hitting what looked to be his backside/hip area. He came out of the game and did not return, diagnosed with a knee injury.
Two days later, just hours before Game 5 on Wednesday, the MRI results came back. Embiid suffered a slight lateral tear of the meniscus in his right knee. He did not play in the series-clinching victory, and is considered day-to-day as the Sixers prepare to face the Atlanta Hawks in the second round.
A meniscus tear paired with a “day-to-day” status? Those are murky waters. Not only will Embiid likely be less than 100 percent for the rest of the playoffs, but he could aggravate the injury even more. Multiple reports state that Philly is prepared to have him play through the injury, with constant treatment and physical therapy already on the docket. But this is not an easy situation to navigate — especially for someone with Embiid’s injury history.
It’s hard to blame anyone in the situation for taking this approach. Ultimately, Embiid and the organization have the same goal: a championship. Given how well this season went, and how the bracket shook out, this season is a golden opportunity for them to achieve that. The Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks, the two other major contenders in the Eastern Conference, have to beat each other up for the next two weeks. The Sixers earned the No. 1 seed, avoiding that battle of Goliaths and comfortably matching up with the upstart Hawks.
Can the Philadelphia 76ers win without Joel Embiid?
Even with that advantage, none of it matters if Embiid can’t go. He is the lifeblood of the Sixers. This season, they outscored opponents by 12.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the court in the regular season and thrashed the Wizards by 33.4 per-100 with him out there in the first round. Without him they tread water, with a net rating of 0.0 in the regular season and plus-0.7 in the playoffs (per Basketball-Reference). He was a Most Valuable Player candidate in every sense of the word.
Everything changes without him. Staying at sea level is an impressive feat given how terrible the Sixers used to be without Embiid, but it’s going to be a lot harder keep that up this round. The Hawks are not doormats; they finished the season winning 27 of their last 38 games, led by Trae Young and a very modern and viable playoff offense. Philly is much easier to pick apart without it’s defensive fulcrum.
Atlanta has a strong foundation on offense: Trae Young, shooters and a lob threat. Young uses excellent awareness, body control, and shooting proficiency from all levels of the court to get basically whatever shot he (or a teammate) wants. And if a defender cheats off his man, an open 3 or lob awaits.
Ben Simmons is a good panacea against elite offensive players, but just a few small mistakes could put him in foul trouble. And if Embiid isn’t out there patrolling the rim, the Sixers will be forced to switch the screener’s man onto Young, leaving someone worse than Simmons to handle the matchup. Atlanta can consistently get good looks against Philly if Embiid misses a lot of time.
In the big fella’s absence, the Sixers will have to get creative. Radical, even. Doc Rivers will have to put Simmons at the 5, and hope that the offensive boosts in such lineups aren’t brought down by defensive pitfalls. Can you get great offense out of units that include Simmons and Matisse Thybulle? How many minutes can Dwight Howard eat?
No one knows how many games Embiid will play, nor how much of himself he will be for those games. Even if he isn’t 100 percent, he’s still impactful enough to swing this series. However, if he can’t go for the first game or two, the Hawks have a chance to steal one in Philly, have homecourt advantage in a 1-1 tie, and really put the pressure on the No. 1 seed.